Sociocultural Approaches to Young People's Historical Understanding

Terrie L. Epstein

In observing in 1961 that "history consists essentially of seeing the past through the eyes of the present and in light of its problems," E.H. Carr pointed out that each school, nation or generation of historians rewrites the past according to its own purposes and perspectives. A generation later, William Cronon similarly posited that historians' interpretations of the past are as much shaped by the political, social and cultural context in which they live as they are by the array of historical evidence at hand. By their descriptions of the effects of contemporary contexts on historians' perspectives of the past, both Carr and Cronon reminded the reader that historical interpretations are inextricably linked to present-day ideologies.
The proliferation of historical narratives written by and about women, people of color and non-elites over the last 30 years is evidence of one major change in historians' perspectives on the historical actors or groups worthy of study. This change raises some important questions affecting the teaching of history. Just as historians' interpretations of the past are influenced by the social and cultural contexts in which they live, so too are those of teachers and learners.

One important task for educational researchers is to understand how sociocultural contexts shape teachers' and learners' understandings, and how teaching and learning can be enhanced by those understandings. A generation ago, approaches to teaching and learning were dominated by cognitive orientations toward thinking in which teachers taught learners to master universally applicable content, concepts or skills by the repetition and practice of isolated and discrete tasks, carried out in the privacy of individuals' minds. Today, researchers who write from a sociocultural perspective or orientation conceptualize learning as a process in which the learner is enculturated into a set of socially structured actions and interactions. The community or communities of learners and teachers in which the learner interacts exercise a strong influence on the content, concepts and skills which the learner acquires.

Sociocultural studies on the teaching and learning of history have begun to emerge and contribute important findings to existing cognitive-oriented research on young peoples' historical understanding. In this article, I will present findings from three socioculturally oriented studies, highlighting the differences between and insights gained from each set of studies. I will evaluate the implications of these three studies for reforming the teaching of history so that all children's and adolescents' social and cultural practices and perspectives are taken into account.

Recent Research
A number of recent studies have shown that sociocultural research into young people's historical understanding can illuminate how contexts beyond the classroom shape children's and adolescents' historical thinking; how factors related to young people's racial, ethnic, class, or national identities influence their thinking about historical concepts or methods; and how differences between teachers' and young people's historical perspectives or interactional patterns shape what children learn to think historically.

A Canadian Study
One recent study conducted in an urban, multiethnic Canadian high school4
examined the historical understanding of six eleventh-grade students of different ethnicities enrolled in social studies classes. The researcher found that their, or their families, life experiences related to their ethnic identities and/or immigrant status had significant effects on shaping these young people's ideas about the concepts of historical significance, agency, change, and empathy. Unfortunately, Seixas noted, the social studies teachers involved did little to draw upon the students' diverse backgrounds and understandings in teaching them about historical or social science concepts or interpretations. Seixas recommended that history teachers engage the knowledge and understandings that students from ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds bring to historical inquiry as a means for teaching young people to think historically.

A New Zealand Study
In another study, conducted in a sixth-grade classroom in a suburban school in New Zealand,5 researchers illustrated how a teacher presented, and students enacted, concepts and practices of racial hierarchy during a social studies lesson on the history of New York City. The teacher began the lesson by noting that Native Americans were the city's first inhabitants. He then changed the topic of the lesson by focusing on subsequent European exploration. Referring to Dutch explorers interchangeably as "Europeans," "White people," and "we," the teacher constructed a historical narrative in which the Dutch became the main agents of historical change, and the Native Americans became invisible victims. The teacher then compared the Dutch exploration of New York City to the European exploration of New Zealand, commenting that "our ancestors," like the Dutch, were of European descent. The children in the class, all of whom but one were Caucasian, similarly identified with the Dutch by referring to them as people like their ancestors or as people like themselves.
The teacher's positioning of European explorers as significant historical actors with whom he identified also influenced interpersonal interactions among the children. As the teacher discussed European exploration, a Caucasian child kicked and uttered racial slurs at the one dark-skinned Maori child in the class. When the Maori child asked the Caucasian child to stop, the teacher noticed a disturbance and asked the Maori child to pay attention. After the lesson, a group of Caucasian children, including the one who kicked the Maori child, asked the teacher to remove the Maori child from the class because he was disruptive. Ironically, the researchers pointed out, the teacher planned the lesson as part of a multicultural unit designed to highlight the interactions of cultures. Yet by constructing history from a European-oriented or "White" perspective, the teacher unwittingly encouraged or reinforced racial hierarchies among students.

A Midwestern U.S. Study
In a study I have conducted in an urban Midwestern high school, I have examined the relationship between adolescents' racial identities and experiences and their historical perspective taking.6 Working with students in two eleventh-grade United States history classes, I found that the African African and European American students in the same classes constructed different perspectives on United States history. Specifically, although the African American students considered people and events related to African American freedom and equality to be among the most significant.
European American students considered people and events related to the progressive development of the nation to be the most important. European American students also constructed the concept of individual or citizenship rights historically and in contemporary society as a distinct and unalienable characteristic of the nation's historical legacy and of their own civic identities. African American students, however, thought about citizenship rights as a contradiction between the concept as an ideal and the actual denial of rights to African Americans and other significant segments of the nation's population.

Differences in historical perspectives also shaped African American and European American students' ideas about the credibility of secondary historical sources and accounts. European American students ranked the textbook, teacher and library books as the most credible sources for information on history. They believed that because "experts" had written the textbook, and teachers had studied history in college, they had authoritative knowledge about the past. African American students, however, ranked family members as the most credible sources of historical information, with teachers and documentaries by or about African Americans as the second and third most credible sources. African American students believed that the textbook didn't tell the "whole story" of United States history because it omitted or marginalized the histories of African Americans and other people of color. They also believed that African American teachers, through family members and their connections to the African American community, had greater access than others to accurate information on African American history.

In general, the European American students accepted teachers' and textbooks' accounts of United States history because they were congruent with their own life experiences, as well as the perspectives on United States history they had learned about from family members and the media. The 19 European American students interviewed over a three-year period gave no examples of their or their family members' having had their civil rights violated, or of having had experiences in the Depression, World War II, or Vietnam that differed significantly from those presented by the teacher or textbook.

African American students, on the other hand, distrusted the perspectives on United States history presented in textbooks in particular, because the texts left out, marginalized or sanitized the racial oppression that African Americans and others had experienced throughout history. In addition, almost all of the African American students interviewed (20 over a three-year period) recounted stories in which they, their immediate family members or their ancestors had had their civil rights or physical bodies violated by "the government," "White people," or the police.

In order to cope with the conflict between mainstream historical perspectives taught in school and an alternative perspective presented by family and community members, many African American students constructed a "double historical consciousness," or two perspectives on United States history. One perspective mirrored what traditional history textbooks and other accounts presented as the main theme of America's historical legacy: the progressive and positive development of the nation state, which granted economic and political freedoms to most, although not all, Americans.

The other perspective, which was the only perspective presented by some African American students, was one in which White people and/or the government sponsored or sanctioned African American enslavement, segregation, and present-day violations of African Americans' civil rights. Although this perspective was not officially sanctioned by most teachers and textbooks, African American students often presented this perspective in extra-curricular settings, such as essay contests and other activities associated with "Black History Month," sponsored by local libraries, the local chapter of the NAACP and business corporations.

Implications of Sociocultural Approaches for Future Research
To the extent that the findings of the above-mentioned studies are indicative of variations in the perspectives, knowledge, and experiences that young people from other non-mainstream cultures or communities bring to the classroom, reforms in teaching and learning history based on cognitive-oriented research may be necessary but not sufficient for extending young people's historical understanding. Although all young people benefit from instruction aimed at promoting an understanding of history as an academic discipline, pedagogical reforms aimed solely at the development of conceptual thinking do not address the problems that arise when school based historical knowledge and perspectives differ from those that young people from ethnically or culturally diverse communities have constructed from family members and other sources.
Because there has been very little research on racial- or ethnic-group differences or variations in young people's historical thinking, it is difficult to assess the efficacy of recent proposals for reforming history curricula in the public schools. Proposals by Asante, the National Center for History in the Schools, the New York State Social Studies Review and Development Committee, Ravitch, and Schlesinger represent a range of perspectives on the meaning and significance of the nation's history to be taught in the public schools.7 Yet only the New York State committee's proposal directly addressed the pedagogical problem of teaching national history to young people whose perspectives on history differ from those presented at school.

Sociocultural studies on young people's historical understanding can broaden our understanding of how social and cultural contexts beyond the school influence children's and adolescents' historical understanding; how factors like race, ethnicity, and social class shape young people's historical thought and how classroom interactions among the teacher, texts and students affect young people's abilities and willingness to learn history. Research conducted from a sociocultural perspective has the potential to strengthen researchers', policy makers', and teachers' knowledge about the diversity in historical thinking young people bring to school, and the school's effects on young people's historical understanding. This understanding in turn provides opportunities for designing history curricula and instruction that recognizes, respects and builds upon the historical understandings all young people bring with them into the classroom and school.


History textbooks long treated Reconstruction as a drama between white Americans, with African Americans playing little more than the role of "extras." Typically, students were introduced to the positions of Presidents Lincoln and Johnson, white Radical Republicans, and white Southern Democrats. Some texts were openly sympathetic to the former Confederates. For example, in the 1931 edition of the long-lived text by Casner and Gabriel (then titled Exploring American History), freed Negroes were presented as ignorant dupes of carpetbaggers and scalawags who controlled Southern legislatures and misused public funds. Explained the text: "Then southern white men began organizing themselves into secret societies, the most famous of which was the Ku Klux Klan, to fight the evils that surrounded them." Since the civil rights movement, textbooks have gradually come to present a more accurate and complex view of Reconstruction; yet most still accord African American leaders only passing mention at best. The thinking of such eminent leaders as Rep. Robert Elliott of South Carolina is ignored, and the reality of their political empowerment-however brief-barely exposed to students. The illustration shown here commemorates a speech on "civil rights" delivered by Elliott in the House of Representatives on January 6, 1874. The bill he was addressing guaranteed equal treatment in all places of public accommodation to all, and was passed as the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Surrounding the central image are others designed to lend support to the speaker's cause, including black Civil War soldiers on foot and horseback, and a commendation of their war service by President Lincoln. Among the words quoted from Elliott's speech are these: "The rights contended for in this bill are among the sacred rights of mankind, which are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records; they are written as with a sunbeam in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power."

1 E. H. Carr, What Is History? (London: Macmillan, 1961).
2 W. Cronon, "A Place for Stories: Nature, History and Narrative" in Journal of American History 78 (1992), 1347-79.
3 Jerome Bruner, Acts of Meaning (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986).
4 Peter Seixas, "Historical Understanding Among Adolescents in a Multicultural Setting" in Curriculum Inquiry 23 (1993), 301-337.
5 Adrienne Alton-Lee, Graham Nuthall and John Patrick, "Reframing Classroom Research: A Lesson from the Private World of Children" in Harvard Educational Review 63 (1993), 50-84.
6 This research is funded by grants from the Spencer Foundation Small Grants Program, the National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, and the Office of the Vice President for Research at the University of Michigan.
7 M. K. Asante, "The Afrocentric Idea in Education" in Journal of Negro Education 60 (1991), 170-180; National Center for History in the Schools, National Standards for United States History (Los Angeles: Author, 1994); New York State Social Studies Review and Development Committee, One Nation, Many Peoples: A Declaration of Cultural Independence (Albany, NY: Department of Education, 1991); Diane Ravitch, "Multiculturalism: E Pluribus Plures" in The American Scholar (1990), 337-354; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Disuniting of America (New York: Norton, 1991).

Terrie L. Epstein is a faculty member in the School of Education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.